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Classifying Crimes by Severity

Whenever a crime is committed, it generally falls into one of three different categories: “summary offense,” “misdemeanor” or “felony.” But what exactly are the specific differences in each of these three categories, and how do courts determine which crimes fall into each category? 

The following is some more information on each of these three classifications

  • Summary Offenses. Also known as “citations,” these are typically small offenses punishable usually by fines but not jail time. They also cannot result in jury trials unless the maximum term of imprisonment exceeds six months. However, defendants can hire an attorney to fight their citations, but there is no duty on the part of the government to provide an attorney for them unless imprisonment is likely. The most common types of offenses are traffic offenses, underage drinking citations, public drunkenness, retail theft, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, harassment, truancy and disorderly conduct.
  • Misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that can carry jail time of up to 5 years. Punishments will also typically involve fines, community service, probation or restitution. People charged with misdemeanors are entitled to trials by jury and usually will be entitled to lawyers provided by the government. Misdemeanors can occasionally be broken down into subcategories based on their severity.
  • Felonies. Felonies are the most serious form of criminal offense, which usually involve serious physical harm. Certain white collar crimes, such as embezzlement or fraud schemes, can also be classified as felonies depending on the seriousness of the offense. Punishments can include years in prison up to the death penalty in states that allow it for first-degree murder. Felonies can also be divided into classes based on how serious the offense is.


If you would like more information on the classifications of crimes, consult dedicated Reading criminal defense lawyer David R. Eshelman.

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